Tuesday, 20 August 2019

November (Rainer Sarnet, 2017)

Rainer Sarnet's film, produced with support from the Netherlands Film Fund and the Netherlands Film Production Incentive, is an ambitious work which sits somewhere between Hard to Be a God and the work of David Lynch.  A folk tale set in the 19th century, November centres on the stories of poor farm girl Liina (Rea Lest) and fellow peasant Hans (Jörgen Liik).  Although she's promised to a grotesque farmer, Liina has romantic designs on Hans, who in turn only has eyes for the somnambulist daughter (Jette Loona Hermanis) of a German aristocrat (Dieter Laser, familiar from Tom Six's Human Centipede trilogy).  Both Hans and Liina are stretching for a love which seems out of reach, yet with superstition and magic seemingly all around the village (despite - or because of - the presence of the Church), the pair resort to other, darker means in order to capture the hearts of those they desire.

One way in which magic manifests itself is in the form of kratt, creatures who live to work and are usually made up of tools and other pieces of wood and metal; these oddities only come to life when they're furnished with a soul, which their masters obtain via a bargain with the devil (Satan is personified here, and always meets those looking to animate a kratt at, quite appropriately, a deserted crossroads).  Some try to dupe the devil by signing his book in berry juice instead of their blood, but it's a trick he soon becomes wise to.  If all this wasn't enough, the villagers also have to contend with werewolves (which Liina may know a little something about) and the plague which, amusingly, takes the form of a goat.  

All Souls' Day, which occurs during the month of the film's title, features in the story in a rather novel way: rather than the dead simply being remembered, here they actually come back for the day, and return to their families and homes; the eerie nocturnal sequence in which the villagers collect the departed from the graveyard is both highly effective and rather moving.  The treatment of All Souls' Day is a good marker of how the villagers view, and deal with, Christianity (communion wafers are coughed up to be used as bullets for hunting - the logic being that Jesus can fell any animal).  Christ's teachings exist as just one of the belief systems in place, with paganism also playing a prominent role here; it's as if these venal villagers take a pick 'n' mix approach to religion, borrowing bits of different philosophies in order to attain their selfish goals.

While much of the film takes on a very serious tone, there a number of laugh-out-loud moments, the bulk of which come courtesy of the kratt, which stand as the most bizarre entities glimpsed on a screen since the manifestation of the Man from Another Place in Twin Peaks: The Return.  Watching a kratt move (and talk) is as funny as it is disconcerting, and the quiver of a misery whip which tops a pile of newly-disassembled kratt parts is a comic highlight.  The kratt are also capable of eliciting other emotions, too: the film's menacing opening sequence sees one of the creatures stealing a very worried cow, while there's a real melancholy to the scenes between the lovelorn Hans and his snowman kratt (by far the least utilitarian of the creatures featured here, but you'll miss him when he's gone).

It would be wrong to review November and not mention what is undoubtedly the film's strongest suit: the cinematography.  Mart Taniel's lensing really is a joy to behold, and the stark, icy monochrome images are little short of incredible. Taniel contributes so much to the film's rich atmosphere, and his work means that the film is never dull, even if the story can be best described as fitfully engaging.  While the film could use a bit of tightening up in places, it throws around enough in the way of interesting ideas to ensure that viewer concentration never wanders; a lively and fitting score also does much to help move things along.  

Darren Arnold

Images: Eureka Video

Sunday, 11 August 2019

The Hole in the Ground (Lee Cronin, 2019)

Recently released on DVD, The Hole in the Ground is a promising first feature from director Lee Cronin, and for the most part it's an admirable exercise in low-key horror, one which is only slightly let down by a disappointing final reel - but, let's be honest, that's the sort of - ahem - hole that many a film from the genre has fallen into.  It's a well-crafted work which boasts both excellent cinematography and fine acting, and there's enough here to suggest that a steady career in features awaits its director.  Cronin had made several TV ads and short films before making a splash with the 17-minute Ghost Train, which scooped a prestigious award from the Brussels-based European Fantastic Film Festivals Federation (EFFFF).  The Hole in the Ground is a Belgian co-production, and, like Ghost Train, also received funding from Finland - which presumably explains the surprising, welcome casting of Aki Kaurismäki regular Kati Outinen.

Sarah (Seána Kerslake) and her young son Chris (James Quinn Markey) have fled to a house in the countryside, presumably to escape Sarah's abusive ex.  Their new home is certainly remote, and it's surrounded by a forest in which there's a huge, strange sinkhole - the hole in the ground of the title.  While this crater makes for a rather unsettling sight, Sarah doesn't have too much time to dwell on the oddity as she sets about establishing the new family abode.  While driving close to home, Sarah nearly runs over an elderly, clearly disturbed woman (Outinen) who is standing in the middle of the road; later on, Sarah sees the woman, whose name is Noreen, and her husband Des (James Cosmo), and Noreen tells Sarah that Chris is not her son.

Soon after this unpleasant incident, Noreen is found murdered with her head buried in the earth, and Sarah attends the funeral, where Des gives a little more information about his wife's troubled existence: Noreen firmly believed that their son, James, had been taken away and replaced by a doppelgänger, and she could tell the difference when the carbon copy stood in front of a mirror.  Even allowing for the upheaval Chris has experienced over the past few months, Sarah feels her son's behaviour is atypical, and she entertains thoughts similar to those which troubled Noreen for many years.  Predictably enough, a medical examination turns up no major problems with Chris.

The film then proceeds to pull off an impressive balancing act, leaving us guessing: is there actually something wrong with Chris, or is it Sarah who's unravelling?  While there's nothing especially new in this basic concept, the treatment of it is sufficiently skilful to make The Hole in the Ground an enjoyably spooky experience, and Cronin demonstrates a good eye for folk horror as he fully taps into the creepiness of the isolated, bucolic surroundings.  It is only when we reach the film's aforementioned latter stages that the director loses his grip - and his nerve - as measured psychological horror gives way to gloopy FX.  Cronin does manage to right the ship somewhat with a satisfying coda, but it's a pity that one of the more intriguing horror films of recent times loses its way so close to its conclusion.  Still, this is a generally solid film with some interesting flourishes, and it will be interesting to see how Lee Cronin builds on this most assured debut.

Darren Arnold

Image: WildCard Distribution

Wednesday, 24 July 2019

Rutger Hauer (1944–2019)

Rutger Hauer (2018)
Image: DWDD [CC BY 3.0]
Dutch actor Rutger Hauer will probably be best remembered - at least by Anglophone audiences - for his performances in 80s classics Blade Runner and The Hitcher.  But long before these Hollywood adventures, the Breukelen-born Hauer had featured in a slew of Dutch-language films, including four for Paul Verhoeven: Katie Tippel, Turkish Delight, Spetters and Soldier of Orange; prior to these features, Verhoeven had directed Hauer in 60s TV series Floris.  The pair would also collaborate in the mid-80s on the English-language historical drama Flesh+Blood, which failed to replicate the duo's earlier successes.  Despite this misstep, the 1980s proved to be Hauer's most successful period, and it was during this decade that he began to star in a series of hugely popular TV ads for Guinness.

From the 1990s on, Hauer's profile was significantly lower as he opted for a number of roles in low-budget films; that said, he still appeared in the occasional lavish production, such as Luc Besson's Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets and Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins.  His final film (of those released in his lifetime) was Jacques Audiard's outstanding The Sisters Brothers, which we reviewed back in April.  In addition to guest starring in HBO's vampire show True Blood, he also played Van Helsing in legendary horror director Dario Argento's Dracula 3D, a role which sat in direct contrast to his turn as vampire king Lothos in Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  He died on July 19 at his home in Friesland, after a short illness.

Darren Arnold

Thursday, 18 July 2019

Henri Storck, Part 3: De patroon is dood (1938)

Maison du Cygne 01
The Brussels café where the BWP was founded. Image: EmDee [CC BY-SA 3.0]
The final film we'll look at in our overview of Henri Storck's "social films" is an appropriately solemn documentary of the funeral of Belgische Werkliedenpartij leader Emile Vandervelde.  De patroon is dood was one of five films made by its director in 1938, and it closes out the Cinematek "social films" set in a manner which underlines Storck's greatness.  It may lack the immediacy of Borinage or De huizen van ellende, but De patroon is dood shows another side of Storck as he records a sober state occasion in an inventive yet unfussy manner.
Camille Huysmans. Image: Eric Koch (ANEFO) [CC BY-SA 3.0]
Emile Vandervelde was a leading figure in both Belgian and international socialism, and earned the nickname "The Boss" long before it was hijacked by a certain singer-songwriter from New Jersey.  He held several ministerial posts, with his final cabinet role being Minister of Public Health in Paul van Zeeland's government.  Critical of King Leopold II's creation (and direct rule) of the Congo Free State and eager to intervene in the Spanish Civil War, Vandervelde was a strong proponent of internationalism, but he would nevertheless come under pressure from younger members of his party as his career (and life) headed towards its conclusion.  His strong socialist ideals very much lined up with those of Henri Storck, so the existence of this film isn't too surprising, and it serves a dual function as both tribute and public record.
Émile Vandervelde 1919
Emile Vandervelde. Image: Harris & Ewing [Public domain]
Storck's deftly edited short film - it's less than half an hour long - captures both the scale and spectacle of the obsèque as huge crowds take to the streets of Brussels.  The funeral was held on the penultimate day of 1938, and it was a cold, grey and wet Friday, but this didn't deter those who wished to pay their final respects to a man who'd served his people right up to the end.  Storck expertly records the mourning, the flags, the flowers and, most poignantly, the torches which are held aloft as the brief December daylight fades.  We also hear from two future Prime Ministers in the form of Léon Blum - who by that stage had already held office twice in France - and Camille Huysmans; their presence here serves to further underline the great importance of Emile Vandervelde to Belgian politics, and De patroon is dood does much to secure the legacies of both its director and his subject.

Darren Arnold

Wednesday, 10 July 2019

Henri Storck, Part 2: De huizen van ellende (1937)

Jorge Ruiz - John Grierson 1955
John Grierson (right). Image: Link [Public domain]
The booklet which accompanies the Cinematek Blu-ray/DVD set which includes De huizen van ellende refers to the film as a "fictional documentary".  While this may sound like an oxymoron, it's actually a pretty fair description of a film in which non-professionals play out scenarios closely matching real events they were directly involved in.  As such, De huizen van ellende isn't far removed from the work of Jean Rouch, that master of the ethnographic film, who correctly observed that subjects will always be affected by their awareness of the camera.  Four years on from Borinage and minus Joris Ivens (who at that time was in Spain with Ernest Hemingway), Henri Storck had overhauled his technique and now included dialogue in a film which took an unblinking look at Belgian slum housing and all its attendant problems.  In many ways this is a companion piece to Borinage, as the subject of the earlier film - the 1932 miners' strike - chiefly served to highlight the truly terrible living conditions of the workers and their families.  There's a further link in that the French titles of these two films share a highly apt word: misère.

De huizen van ellende, in both content and message, bears similarities to the 1935 John Grierson production Housing Problems, which documented how the same issue was presenting itself on the other side of the English Channel, where the Greenwood Act - which encouraged councils to demolish slum housing and build new homes - had been passed in 1930.  These two films charted the same, very real problem, and both stood as pieces of propaganda in which the filmmakers' feelings could hardly have been more obvious.  Despite the awful living conditions witnessed in both works, there is a shared optimism as these films look to the future and the promise of the new, planned housing estates which would significantly raise the living standards of those who had endured (and survived) life in the slums.  As De huizen van ellende comes to a close, we are shown the demolition of slum dwellings, and the viewer can share in the joy of the onlooking crowds, who are delighted to witness the razing of these miserable, unsanitary buildings.

Before this most welcome release, however, Storck presents us with a suffocating, claustrophobic litany of deprivation: overcrowding, pitiless landlords, tuberculosis, maternal mortality, evictions, lack of schooling, loan sharks... surviving another day amidst such squalor and disease was about as good as it got for the slums' forlorn inhabitants.  And although this impressive slice of docufiction does end on a relatively uplifting note, we are all too conscious of the sad fact that the outbreak of WW2 would soon see Belgium facing far bigger problems than slum accommodation; the UK of Grierson's film, which during wartime would host many exiled Belgians as well as the Belgische regering in Londen, would endure an even greater housing crisis as the Luftwaffe bombs rained down.

Darren Arnold

Tuesday, 2 July 2019

Henri Storck, Part 1: Borinage (w/ Joris Ivens, 1933)

Joris Ivens
Joris Ivens. Image: NOS [CC BY-SA 3.0 nl]
It is hard to overstate the importance of Henri Storck's contribution to documentary film.  The Oostende native was one of the founders of the Royal Belgian Film Archive and appeared in two classics of 20th century cinema: Jean Vigo's Zero for Conduct and Chantal Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23, quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles.  These achievements alone would make for a formidable CV before you even begin to consider Storck's 50+ years as a director.  Storck died 20 years ago, but we can still see much of his pioneering work thanks to the archive he helped establish; Cinematek (as the KBF is now known) have released an excellent series of Blu-ray/DVD sets featuring some of the director's best documentaries.  Over the next few posts, we'll take a look at one of these sets, a dual-format release containing three titles known as "the social films".  Although rather expensive, this release (and Cinematek's work in general) is definitely worthy of your time and money.  The discs are region-free, and Dutch, English and French options are included, as is a nice booklet with notes in all three languages; it's clear that Cinematek are really pushing for Storck's work to reach as wide an audience as possible.
Bardouxha Mont 1893-mw-c
The Borains. Image: "Le petit journal" (Paris), May 1893 [Public domain]
The first film in the set, Borinage, is arguably Storck's finest (half) hour.  It is a collaboration between Storck and Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens, and it documents the effects of the miners' strike of 1932 in the area of the title.  Ivens and Storck initially set out to make a balanced, objective documentary on a subject most of Belgium was indifferent towards, but upon arriving in the Borinage and witnessing the abject poverty and appalling living conditions firsthand, the pair soon changed tack.  The unsympathetic nature of both mine owners and police is plain to see, and Storck and Ivens formed a good relationship with the striking miners and their families.  While the filmmakers were able to capture genuine footage, they also collaborated with the workers in order to film reconstructed scenes (a practice Storck would return to in future films), with the impoverished miners accepting nothing more than bread as payment for their efforts.
Jean Vigo
Jean Vigo. Image: unknown/неизвестно [Public domain]
The scale of the poverty on display here really has to be seen to be believed, and it is incredible to think that this is 20th century western Europe on film.  The inhabitants of the overcrowded hovels are shown resorting to increasingly desperate measures, ranging from using their own floorboards as firewood to drinking from a flooded cellar in the absence of potable water.  It's the sort of thing you might read about in Zola (whose Germinal, filmed by Claude Berri in 1993, unfolded against the backdrop of a miners' strike), but seeing real footage of starving, unwashed, uneducated children facing yet another interminably bleak day is a most upsetting experience.
Chantal Akerman - video still (cropped)
Chantal Akerman. Image: Mario De Munck [CC BY-SA 4.0]
Borinage was originally a silent film which played with Dutch and French intertitles, although in the 1960s these were replaced by a voiceover by Cinematek co-founder André Thirifays; this later version is the one included on the Cinematek DVD.  The absence of dialogue somehow lends a greater authenticity to the work, although Storck would change his approach when it came to the next entry in the "social films" set (De huizen van ellende), which we'll discuss in an upcoming post.  Henri Storck didn't stay wholly rooted in the documentary format, and even directed a fictional feature film (1952's The Smugglers' Banquet); his working methods were a clear influence on many, including his compatriot Agnès Varda.  Please give half an hour of your time to Borinage if you've never seen it - it's a remarkable documentary, and its preservation alone is a major cause for celebration.

Darren Arnold

Wednesday, 26 June 2019

Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition (26/4/19–15/9/19)

Danny Torrance's jumper from The Shining
Seven years ago Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition could be experienced at Amsterdam's EYE Filmmuseum and has since wound its way (via cities including Toronto, Frankfurt and Barcelona) to London's Design Museum, where it runs until the 15th of September.  This terrific exhibition features countless props, costumes, annotated scripts, lenses, posters, and so on, and you should make every effort to see if it ever turns up anywhere near you.  It even gives you the opportunity to see the sole Oscar won by Kubrick, which was awarded to the director for his groundbreaking FX work on 2001: A Space Odyssey.  Kubrick may have made just 13 feature films in 46 years, but he's as good a shout as any for the label of 🐐.

Axes used in The Shining's most famous scene
The exhibition's impressive entrance area sets the mood nicely, with the initial fanfare from Richard Strauss' Also sprach Zarathustra providing its usual frisson.  You swiftly emerge into a room which is slightly overwhelming, and it's difficult to work out where to start when faced with four walls of artefacts and a couple of central islands featuring yet more exhibits.  The staff do point out that this part is non-chronological (as, it soon transpires, is the rest of the exhibition), so there's no real problem in dotting around and finding less busy spots.  This first room presents assorted Kubrickiana from various stages of the director's life and career, and it's in here that we find an interesting Dutch connection in the form of a mention of a film called Aryan Papers.  You may not have heard of this film as it was one of Kubrick's discarded projects, and it's never received anything like the amount of discussion and scrutiny afforded to his abandoned epic Napoleon.   

Oscar-winning costumes from Barry Lyndon
For Aryan Papers, which was to be a film about the holocaust, Kubrick had lined up Dutch actress Johanna ter Steege for the leading role.  At that point (the early 1990s) ter Steege was best known for her award-winning performance in George Sluizer's Spoorloos, and she travelled to England to meet with Kubrick, who was greatly impressed by the actress.  Once the role was confirmed as hers, ter Steege waited for the call to start work on the production, and she would receive frequent, reassuring updates from Kubrick's producer (and brother-in-law) Jan Harlan, who told the actress not to worry about any postponements or delays.  During this extended period of downtime ter Steege turned down other roles, but eventually she received the dreaded news that Kubrick had decided to abandon the film.  This decision was at least partly influenced by the fact that his previous film, Full Metal Jacket, had appeared shortly after another Vietnam War movie, Oliver Stone's Platoon, and Kubrick felt that this close proximity had not been especially helpful.  So when he learned that Steven Spielberg's thematically similar Schindler's List was due to be released before Aryan Papers, he decided to call time on the project.  Kubrick would complete one more film - Eyes Wide Shut - before dying, aged 70, in 1999.

2001: A Space Odyssey's Space Station V
Following the first room, there are ten separate displays, each devoted to a single film.  Kubrick's first three movies aren't included here, but everything from 1957's Paths of Glory on gets a substantial space in which props (and other items from the relevant production) are often augmented by a clip from the given film.  Quite naturally, chances are you'll spend longer in the rooms which focus on your own particular favourites, but the final area, devoted to 2001, is probably the pick of the bunch, with The Shining's patch coming a close second.  The Full Metal Jacket display has some interesting photographs of Beckton Gas Works, which stood in for ruined Vietnamese buildings, but I didn't spot any pictures of Cliffe, the village where some of the open country scenes were filmed.  I used to live not too far from Cliffe, so I've included a snap of my own of the area which, over three decades ago, temporarily became Vietnamese countryside.

Cliffe, one of the locations for Full Metal Jacket
There is a great deal to see at the exhibition, and perhaps the biggest recommendation that can be given is that, like many of Kubrick's films, it genuinely feels as if it has real replay value.  It would take many hours to read and study everything on display, so a second visit is sure to reveal details which weren't noticed first time around.  We are fortunate that Kubrick lived and worked in an age when practical effects still dominated - just think how much would be missing from this show if his work was driven by CGI.  Stanley Kubrick: The Exhibition will almost certainly leave you with the desire to jump back into the films, so make sure you have a decent selection of Kubrick movies lined up for the days following your visit to this justifiably popular attraction.

Words/images: Darren Arnold